Spotlight on R.F. Kuang
By Leanne Francis, Michelle Ye, Shaniah Shields and Jia Wen Ho
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Chinese American award-winning and bestselling author of The Poppy War trilogy, Babel and the upcoming Yellowface. She earned an MPhil and MSc at Cambridge and Oxford respectively and is currently at Yale working towards a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures.
The Poppy War
Released in 2018, Kuang’s first novel, The Poppy War, is a Nebula Award, Goodreads Choice Award and Locus Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Crawford, Stabby and Compton Crook Awards. Drawing on the legends of ancient China and the conflicts of the Sino-Japanese Wars, Kuang’s coalescence of Chinese mythology and history yields a story with complex characters and rich world-building. The book begins with a war orphan from the Rooster Province, Rin, who defies all expectations and aces an Empire-wide exam, the Keju. This critical success allows her to escape her abusive guardians and enter Sinegard, the Empire’s most prestigious military academy.
Unfortunately, Rin’s hardships only grow when Sinegard’s noble, wealthy students ostracise and attack her for her poverty, gender and lack of connections. Pushed to the brink and desperate to survive, Rin unlocks a long-buried ability – a fiery shamanic power. With guidance from an eccentric professor at Sinegard, Rin learns to control her powers just in time to save not only herself, but the entire Empire from ruin at the hands of the Federation of Mugen.
The Dragon Republic
The Dragon Republic is the critically acclaimed sequel to The Poppy War. Published in 2019, R.F. Kuang’s incendiary follow-up novel is set in the aftermath of the Third Poppy War. Inspired by China’s 20th century history, this epic fantasy documents the journey of shaman and warrior Rin as she navigates a world of gods and monsters.
Haunted by the atrocity she committed in order to end the third war, Rin struggles with an addiction to opium. Whilst battling her guilt and drug addiction, she tries to resist the commands of the god who gave her her power. Refusing to die until she avenges the Empress, Rin throws herself into the battlefield once again, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake and forging unlikely allegiances to create a new republic.
The Burning God
The heart-breaking and bloody conclusion to The Poppy War trilogy, The Burning God, was released during the COVID-19 pandemic. The book follows anti-hero Rin – who is more powerful than ever, but also incredibly traumatised – to the very end. It’s no secret that the ending is tragic, which many readers and critics have lauded as a devastating yet satisfying finish.
Commenting on her writing process for The Burning God, Kuang mentioned that the initial drafts of the book were more ethically, politically and historically flat. However, her studies of Chinese history and literature filled her with questions that she eventually included to bring more depth to the novel’s final version. Kuang also mentioned that she learned to disregard readers’ opinions and focus on how she wanted the story to take form. The last chapter of The Burning God became one of the chapters she’s most proud of.
Babel: An Arcane History
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution truly is the pinnacle of dark academia and grimdark fantasy excellence. Published in the UK on 1 September 2022, Babel has already peaked at number two on The Sunday Times bestseller list due to Kuang’s captivating writing and unapologetic exploration of the consequences of empire, colonialism and power.
Kuang describes Babel as “a love letter and a breakup letter to Oxford,” which is the Royal Institute of Translation and the novel’s setting. With a superbly rendered magic system, this harrowing book is a fantasy underpinned by history, including the First Opium War. We follow Robin Swift, who is orphaned in Canton and raised in England by a mysterious guardian, only to discover that by serving Babel he is betraying his motherland. At the heart of this story is an ode to language, where translators hold the keys to the empire and an Oxfordian utopia on the brink of collapse.
R.F. Kuang’s fifth book, Yellowface, is due to be published in 2023. As explained by publisher William Morrow and Company, this is the story of a white author who steals the unpublished manuscript of a successful Asian American novelist, who died in a freak accident, and claims it as her own. Yellowface, Morrow says, tackles “questions of diversity and racism in publishing.”